Entities have few revenue options

BELLAIRE A question posed to Belmont County Auditor Andy Sutak from Mike Kovalyk sparked a lengthy discussion about taxes during Bellaire’s budget hearing.

Kovalyk, the village’s police chief, asked Sutak if he saw any possibility of funding being available to give his officers a raise.

The department has had one raise in a decade and recently lost one of its officers, who left to work at a different local department because of higher pay.

That puts the Bellaire PD down to eight officers, plus the chief.

The good news is there wasn’t an additional cut to local government funding. The bad new is that the local government total is down 50 percent from what it was just a few short years ago.

Bellaire, however, is not unique in that problem as every municipality in Ohio is dealing with decreased funding being handed down from Columbus.

Ways to increase the general fund were discussed from increasing the village’s income tax to a possible police levy. Given the recent fate of the repeated attempts by the Bellaire Village School District to pass a levy, neither prospect seemed plausible.

The discussion started to shift when Sutak began discussing maintaining roads in the wake of the oil and gas industry, as well as other industrial travel.

A lot of towns are receiving the truck traffic and upkeep will be necessary to keep them safe and useable. Soon, the discussion moved toward the bigger picture of decisions made or not made by state government as it relates to local government funding, the oil and gas industry and how it all relates to Belmont County and its political sub-divisions’ fiscal plight.

“They could have let us put a severance tax on so we don’t have to increase taxes on our people, just to be able to pay for minimum services,” Sutak said. “This was our way out. A way to receive funds back from all the wells going up.’

Sutak believes the counties most affected by the industry should have been able to put through their own severance taxes.

Although no new severance taxes were created when Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed H.B. 59, the state’s budget, into law recently, severance taxes were part of the original proposal.

At one point, the plan called for a 4.5 percent severance tax, with a quarter of the income from the tax going back to 33 counties in the Appalachian region most affected by the shale industry.

That tax was removed from the budget before passage. But Sutak felt it didn’t go far enough to aiding the counties that are in the heart of the shale play.

But it wasn’t just the severance tax issue that drew Sutak’s attention.

Included in the budget was a slight increase in sales tax a quarter of a percent, a move aimed at offsetting an income tax cut.

That move, itself, wasn’t the problem according to Sutak. It’s how that money is collected and eventually distributed he took exception with.

Sutak explained that close to $70 million in sales tax money generated in Belmont County is sent to Columbus annually. Only a fraction of that is returned.

According to Sutak, around $1.5M is returned in local government funding and another $2.2M goes toward the local libraries. Then add in roughly $15-20M for schools.

“Out of $70 million, we’re getting around $25 million back,” Sutak is. “My theory is, let us keep the money here and we could take care of every political subdivision in the county and do it very well.”

Obviously, Sutak doesn’t believe that is an option but he was just venting his frustration with a system he believes doesn’t take into account the situation, nor the best interests, of Eastern Ohio.

He noted that aside from the Ohio Valley Mall and a few other entities, like the industrial parks, Belmont County is mainly a large residential community in terms of property and income tax purposes.

Industry, in places like Martins Ferry with the former steel mill, and others has dwindled or died out all together. Without major industry to providing large chunks of income tax, coupled with the decline in local government funding, the elimination of personal property tax and other related moves, it’s not leaving the local communities in the region with many options.

Hughes may be reached at mhughes@timesleaderonline.com